After the desert, no more complaining about my sunny, sandy Florida garden (maybe)

banana yucca, sand, red brown cliffs, red rock canyon, las vegas nevada, desert

I’m tempted to vow that I’ll never again complain about the harsh conditions in my Tampa, Fla., garden. (Not!)

But if they can grow this … heck, you can grow that!

I took my first trek into a desert this week and I was amazed by what grows in sand. This is Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert, about 20 miles west of Las Vegas. (If you head to the Strip, know that even my husband loved this respite from the black jack tables). I saw lots more vegetation than I expected — and stumped two rangers at the Visitors Center, who whipped out reference books as we tried to ID the  plants I’d shot.

We do know the spiky stuff in the foreground, above, is banana yucca (Yucca baccata). The Indians who lived here ate the seeds, flowers and fruits. They made soap from the roots and used the leaves’ fibers to weave baskets and make twine. They were rich — this stuff is ALL over the place.

red rock canyon, prickly pear cactus, round green sections, cholla cactus, branches about 1 inch diameter, green, banana yucca, spiky green leaves, sandstone

180 million years ago, Red Rock Canyon was sand dunes. Now those dunes are rocks — and yet, stuff grows! In the foreground, prickly pear cactus (that grows here in Florida, too, and it’s good to eat); behind it to the right, a variety of cholla cactus (I love those branches!), and to the left, banana yucca (I think).

The rangers said Red Rock Canyon is looking particularly colorful right now because they’ve had an unusual amount of rain since August. These neon blooms, rabbit brush, were a hit with the butterflies.

bright yellow hassle blooms, mojave desert, red rock canyon, green lance-shaped leaves, butterfly attractor

On the 13-mile driving loop through the canyon, there are many places to park and hop out to look or hike. I took a hike on the Children’s Discovery Trail while my hub relaxed with the rental car. What could be hard about a children’s 1-mile trail?? Long story short, if you take a hike, carry water and a cell phone — even if you think a “children’s” trail is a no-brainer. I got lost, thought I saw a guy tying his shoe (thank God!!) but it was a mirage (!!), thought about all the Death Valley westerns I’ve watched, freaked, and high-tailed it back the way I’d come.

BUT, since I wasn’t carrying much, I had little to lose. Unlike my fellow hikers.

At the head of almost every trail we ran across was a lost item very kindly retrieved and “posted” by a fellow hiker at the trail head. (How sweet, right?)

car key stuck in post at head of calico hills trail red rock canyon

sneaker tennis shoe on rock at head of trail at red rock canyon mountains in distance

blue hair bow on sandstone rock at head of trail red rock canyon nevada

One more surprise: evergreens! I was stunned to find this pine tree — sorry, can’t tell you the cultivar.

evergreen, pine cones, red rock canyon, mojave desert

Supposedly, we should also have seen wild burros and horses, tortoises and roadrunners, among other desert wildlife. We saw some lizards that look a lot like our Cuban invasives here in Tampa, butterflies, and two chipmunks with wide silver stripes down their backs. Also, a strange man, all dressed up in a yellow pullover sweater and slacks, who seemed to be hiding in a rock crevice. For wildlife, he was our most exciting sighting.

This is a “You Can Grow That!” post — an effort by garden bloggers all over the country (maybe the world?) to make it easy for anyone to get growing. Find more You Can Grow That! posts at Folks – the official You Can Grow That Site .












  1. wo wierd about the guy!…for real? you can go to the remotest spot in the desert and theres people …I love the red..great shots…I love the west too because its such a change…whats the black stuff on the rock??

    • Yes, that guy was weird! I actually took that photo from far away, so he probably couldn’t see me (I cropped it down before I posted so he’d be visible.) When I climbed up near where he was, he slid back farther into the crevice — and he never took his eyes off my husband and me. … The black is just different coloration of the rocks. Black sand once upon a time?

  2. Lucky lucky duck! I drove through there and was awe struck! Awsome is just not strong enough of a word the place is something I would love to visit like you did. Thanks for the photos and story that made my day..Chip

  3. We may have been passing through at about the same time! It just killed me not to be able to stop! Plenty of spots for cars but trucks no way.

    • Chip, the only other time I was in Vegas was in 2004 for a features editors’ conference. We got to see plenty of stuff along the Strip, but didn’t have time to actually leave that area. I kept looking at those brown mountains and thinking, “I want to see what’s out there!” I’m glad I did. I’ve never seen anything like it.

      • I know when I drove through there my mouth was hanging open. That whole drive was amazing. I posted photos from the AZ. New Mex. State line on facebook then I had to pass by the road to the grand Canyon that just killed me. Then pass by the road to Vegas but when I drove though the Mojove dessert wow! And I went though at sunrise but no place for my big old slow truck to stop…

  4. Great pictures and travelogue! The area outside of Vegas is remarkably beautiful–and makes you grateful for areas that have lots of water. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and while I appreciate the desert, my eyes ache for green trees and lush vegetation after a few days in L.V. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Benita! One of the sights most shocking to my tropically raised eyes was seeing Lake Mead from a distance — blue water surrounded by chocolate brown on all sides. I’d always presumed where there’s water, there’s green. Not so!
      I would love to spend time in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve passed through just once, on my way to Alaska.

  5. Beautiful pictures of a beautiful place! Your right, if that much variety of plant life can grow out there in those conditions, then we don’t have much to grumble about in our gardens.
    Maybe the man tying his shoe was the man in the yellow pullover showing up again?

  6. Penny, — The Red Rock area is part of the Spring Mountains, the most biologically significant mountain range in the Mojave Desert and Nevada. It sounds as if your experience was lacking which is unfortunate because its a great place to visit / explore and learn. Stumping “rangers” is normal. Your pine is a Single-leaf pinyon. To learn about just one aspect of Red Rock and the Spring Mountains please see my butterfly website, and if you get to Gainesville visit the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.

    • Thank you, Bruce! Yes, my experience was 100 percent lacking! I’d never been to the desert and never heard of Red Rock Canyon until the very day we were due to fly out — a gardener friend suggested we visit. I love surprises, so in this case, having no idea what to expect made the experience that much more fun and memorable. I was awed by the vistas, the plants, the butterflies and the people. Now, of course, I’m eager to learn more, so thanks for the link!
      Also, thanks for the pine ID. Why is stumping the rangers normal?

  7. Also, the the pale and red bands are due to leaching of minerals (red, mostly iron) from the deposits over millions of years, before they were uplifted. The black material on the rocks is thin crust composed of mostly iron and manganese oxides.

  8. Penny, — I’m pleased you found my butterfly site of interest, my intent was to inform and also promote landscape / habitat conservation. Botany is not my field but according to recent literature 13 species of plants are currently recognized as endemic to the Spring Mountains, another 12 found in the range are endemic to Southern Nevada. A good time to visit higher elevation locations in the range is June / July, also only minutes from Las Vegas via paved roads (and about 25 degrees cooler than the valley). You might want to time your next trip to Vegas accordingly; — many of the endemics, butterflies and plants, are common and easy to find / identify.
    Rangers, — unfortunately agency personnel can often be poorly informed.

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